Joel Spears

1) A little bit about you currently - ensembles, groups, what you play, where you live and all that    

I perform all over the country, but I'm based in Chicago and most active in the upper midwest. I'm one of the founding members of Black Tulip, a multinational ensemble featuring Josefien Stoppelenburg, soprano (the Netherlands), Mirja Lorenz, recorders (Germany), Phillip Serna, viols (US), and myself on lutes and theorbo. There's a very rich cantata repertoire for solo voice with obligato instrument from the 17th and 18th centuries - that's our primary focus, along with all the incredible instrumental music from that period. I've also recently formed a project with Janelle Davis called Weissduo, featuring baroque music for violin and lute. One example is Bach's BWV 1025, Suite for Violin and continuo, that began as a Weiss solo. I'm also excited to join a fantastic group of young singers in an ensemble called "The Strangers," performing music by Salomone Rossi, which some of your readers will recall as being the first composer to include song accompaniments in theorbo tablature. On top of that I do a lot continuo playing with other ensembles large and small. I teach lute at my home studio and at the Music Institute of Chicago. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire (a Chicago suburb) has an unusually robust music program, featuring a full baroque orchestra, where since 2013 I have been teaching theorbo! It's a really exciting opportunity to teach this instrument to students at the high school level, the only instance in the US that I'm aware of

2) Musical upbringing, education, development, highlights, favorite composers and pieces  

My dad has always been musically omnivorous, and I have inherited that trait. Like a lot of teenagers I took up the guitar, playing in a rock band in high school. But at the same time I heard lute music on the radio, and learned that my musical hero JS Bach had written for the instrument. That planted the seed. Years later, I finally met some lute players, and decided to try it out. 

Currently I play 6-course lute, 10-course lute, 14-course theorbo, and 13-course d-minor lute, which covers a lot of music from the 15th-18th centuries, and also modern music.

Favorite composers and pieces? Too many to list, but at the moment -

Bach, Beethoven, Beatles, Machaut, Alexander Agricola, Gombert, Dalza, Monteverdi, Ennemond Gaultier, Jacques Gallot, Arabic music, Indian music, Japanese music, Chinese music, that's just what comes to mind. Today I'm listening to some Handel, a Beethoven string quartet, David Bowie's "Low" album, Django Rhenhardt, and some live Hendrix.

One your readers may not be familiar with is Nicolas Hautman. Born probably in Brussels, he introduced the theorbo to France, and was credited - mistakenly - as the inventor of that instrument. There are theorbo versions of some of his pieces in the Vaudry de Saizeny MS that I'm playing for an upcoming concert and really enjoying. I encourage everyone to try his music.

3) Relationship with Gamut and experience with Gamut strings

Well, I've been buying Gamut strings since the 1990s, when I was just becoming acquainted with the lute and its music. Gamut remains my first choice for gut strings, and I've tried several makers. I use Dan's pistoys, gimped pistoys, trebles, fret gut, and diapasons. In fact I just put some new Gamut diapasons on my theorbo and they sound fantastic. I'm also very excited that Dan's going to build a baroque guitar for my Stevenson High School students. It should be ready by June, just in time for Theorbo and Guitar Summer School. Yes, that is a thing!

4) Plans for your (your group's) musical future  

We've got several concerts coming up in the coming months, including a live radio broadcast on WFMT in May for Black Tulip, and probably another one for The Strangers in September. Black Tulip will also be recording a CD later this year, along with a few videos.

5) Most memorable moments in musical career   

Monteverdi's L'Orfeo with Chicago Opera Theater in 2000, and again at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2002, as part of the "Full Monty" Festival where all 3 extant operas were performed. The BAM performances were particularly resonant, coming as they did only a few months after 9/11. Those are the moments I live for.

Check out the Black Tulip website here!

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